A Little Short Story Fun

The Manor

Lucian ran the manor.  Impeccably dressed at all times, neat salt-and-pepper hair cut close to the scalp and never a single thing out of place, including the staff.  Lucian and I were not exactly friends but came to an understanding of each other on the drive from Newcastle Airport to the Manor when I first arrived.

“How long have you worked at the Manor Lucian?”

“Oh darling, it seems as if forever.  In truth, I came on once the British Library Foundation took over the Manor.  Someone’s got to be here with all the books to preserve the history and keep the staff in line!” 

“Tell me about the Manor.  Anything unusual or special about the home I should know?” 

“Only that the family who once owned the Manor all died off in rather unusual circumstances.  I don’t know much about them, having come on when the Foundation took over the home.  Stay out of the garden and the apple orchard in the dark, as there are lots of ways to get disoriented and lost.  I have had to send the gardener out to find more than one wayward guest.”

“Understood.  Do you know what happened to the family?  Why they all died off?”. 

Lucian glanced at me.  “I think you will find ample time to explore the vast library in the home and understand more about the history of the house.  This might lend some insight into what happened and could be some very good material for a book.  I understand you’re having a bit of writers block.”

“Isn’t that an understatement” I muttered as we continued the long drive into the remote English countryside.  I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

My agent sent me here to get the creative juices flowing.  Close to the Scottish border, lush rolling hills surrounded the valley where the Manor perched, complete with an overgrown garden, dusty stables and a tangled apple orchard.  The stables long ceased to be used for anything besides housing unwanted junk.  The gardens and the apple orchard, left untended for too long, became a thing of their own.  A cheap and easy place to dump a struggling writer.  My agent hoped the solitude would cure my writer’s block. 

My first novel sat on the NY Times Bestseller list for a mere 2 weeks and sales did not earn out as expected.  At least I did not have to give the advance back as it was small to begin with.  My next two books never even hit the bestseller list and there was no advance for those two. I needed something.  Maybe that something would be here in the house. Once I got settled, my first order would be to the find the library.

“Lucian!  Lucian!  Where are you?” 

“Here, darling” as he appeared outside my door.  “Are you all settled?”

“Yes, not much to get settled, after all. Where is the library?” Anxious to get something, anything going, the library would be the place I decided to spend most of my time. 

“Where are the others?” 

“Others, darling?”

“Yes, I thought my agent told me there would be other writers here.”

“Oh no, no.  Only you, I am afraid.  The other writers all cancelled.  It is only you and me.  Oh, and the other staff.  But you will not and should not see them much.”

I lacked for nothing; all my needs attended to. I worked day after day and night after night in the library, my book growing in form.  But so, did the unease.  I heard whispers, kept seeing things out of the corner of my eye, silhouettes in the night. I tried to ask Lucian about the strange goings on. 

“Lucian, what is really going on in this house?  I keep seeing strange things out of the corner of my eye.  The lights flicker and the power goes out.  I felt like I am being watched whenever I am in the library.  Are you sure there is not more here than you are telling me? A house this old has to be haunted.”

“Don’t be silly.  It is just an old house that holds lots of memories, aches and pains.  Do not trouble yourself, it is nothing.”

“Okay. Didn’t we drive through a local village on the way in?  Is there a pub there?  I feel like I need to get out of this house for a bit of fresh air.” With no one else to talk to as the Manor had no cell service or Internet, I thought the locals might know something more of the goings on in the house. 

“Yes, yes, of course.  The village is less than a kilometer away, and you will know the pub when you see it.  Remember to be back before dark. We don’t want to have to send a rescue party out for you, should you get lost.”

“Don’t worry Lucian. I’ll go tomorrow late morning, when I have more daylight.”  I spent an uneasy night of sleep tossing and turning after a solitary dinner.

I took a light breakfast in the library and found something that looked interesting.  Tucked behind the more recent books on the shelf, I found an old book, some sort of ledger, the title worn off with age.  Columns and lists of items and where they came from. I decided to take the book with me to the pub.  As I meandered along the road to the village, feeling the weight of the book in my bag, I wondered if I would learn anything new.  I looked up.  This must be it.  The old, flaked sign moved in the wind.  I couldn’t read the title, something about a horse.

“Can I get a pint of Newcastle Ale?”

“Oh, aye, the brown stuff.  Not from around here, are ya?” 

I laughed.  “That obvious, is it?”

“Oh aye.  Not often we get pretty young ladies around here.  Now, let me get you that pint.  What’s that you’ve got?” 

“This?” I pulled the leather-bound book out.  “This is some type of old ledger I found in the library at the Manor.  I’m trying to learn more about the history of the house.” 

“Well, if it’s history you are wanting, there is plenty to go around.” The barkeep leaned in.  “Some say as that house is haunted.  Many, many years ago the family members started dying off for no reason.  Some say the master of the Manor brought strange, wicked objects from his travels.” He leaned in even closer.  “Some even say as those are what killed his family.” 

“Huh.  Well now that’s interesting.  Thanks for the pint!”  I made my way back to a table at the back of the pub to have some privacy.  I looked through the pages of the ledger, finding nothing of interest until the very last page.  My skin prickled as I saw, among the list of objects brought back, a doll.  The level of the dinner regulars grew in the pub.  Time for me to go before it got dark.  I intended to find out more about the doll back at the house.  As I walked back to the Manor, I began to wonder if the doll had something to do with the strange goings on. 

I made it back to the Manor as the last light faded with the sunset.  Dark seemed to come faster here. I went in the back door off the kitchen. 

“Hello, anyone here?”

I noticed a note on the fridge from Lucian.  He and the staff were gone doing some errands and would be back later.  My dinner warmed in the oven.  Starving, I decided to look for a movie to watch in the entertainment room while eating, instead of going straight to the library.  While I was digging around looking for movies in the endless drawers and cupboards, I found a very old box.  As I pulled the box out from the back of the cupboard it disintegrated in my hands.  A small lump of cloth sat inside attached to a porcelain body, blackened with the spots of damp and decay, missing an eye in the tiny head.  It smelled of moldy, old things.  

I turned to set the doll back in the box to put in the cupboard and it came to life in my hands, morphing into the demon it actually was. Small, and ugly, with a twisted face and sharp needle teeth it scratched and clawed at my hands. I wanted to get as far away from that thing as I could and threw it at the tv screen.  I ran from the room, locking it in from the outside and barricading the door with the table from the hall.  I could hear it scratching and clawing at the door, trying to figure out a way to get through. 

I ran through the house, yelling and screaming.  I knew I had to go, had to get out.  And so, I ran outside.  I ran to a place I didn’t think it could or would find me, the apple orchard.  I spent the night curled up tight around one of the larger, older trees, covering myself with dirt, grass and twigs and anything else I could to keep warm.  I thought I might be safe once the sun rose. 

I woke cramped and cold, covered with dirt.  It was light and I decided to venture back inside.  Book or no book, time to get my things and go. I walked up to the back of the house, going in through the kitchen again.  Heart pounding, I made my way through the kitchen and down the hall towards the entertainment room.   I had to know if it was still in there.  I did not hear anything as I got closer.  The door, still shut, gave way easily as I turned the knob.  Nothing.  No evidence of anything, not even my plate of food from last night. 

I turned to go back to the kitchen and screamed.

“Darling!  Are you alright?”

“No Lucian, I am NOT alright! You scared the crap out of me!”

“I’m so, so sorry!  Where have you been all night? I have been worried sick, and you are covered in dirt.”

I sighed.  “I am not sure you would believe me if I told you.”

“Come with me darling and let me get you settled into the library. I’ll bring you a nice cup of tea and you can tell me all about it.”

Lucian settled me into one the chairs closest to the fire.  He tucked a blanket around me, and I finally felt warm. 

“I won’t be a moment darling, I am going to get that tea, now that you are settled.”

Lucian left, closing the library door behind him.  The lock clicked. 

“Lucian?  Lucian?  Why are you locking me in?”

“Oh no, it is not me darling, it is the Manor.  You are one of us now.”

Burn the Critique Letters

As a writer, I have always heard about “workshopping” your work. I have to confess, I am not much of a group writer. Not at all. In fact, even the thought kind of stresses me out. Some writing is too private for me to share until it is ready. Kind of like cooking. You don’t want to take it out too early.

Last week in my intro to writing class, I had a short story of mine “workshopped”. Basically, I sat around, listened to people talk about why I wrote what I wrote, talk about what was wrong with it, talk about what they liked about it and then offered up some ideas or suggestions. Now, there were a few good things that came out of it, ways I could make my story better. Most of them I already knew. But that was it. What mostly came out of it is that I hate workshops and want to burn every single critique letter. Especially in an intro to fiction writing class where the people in the class know what they are doing even less than me.

I do not enjoy having to read 3-4 shitty first drafts of short stories I have no interest in per week, let alone trying to write a “positive” critique letter and then sit around and talk about it. I detest this process. Some of these people in this class most likely fancy themselves the next Tolkien or Martin or Rowling or whoever and they are not. Ugh. I am in this class to hone my craft and learn some technical elements of writing and it has been a disapointment overall. I am not even sure I want to take another fiction writing class. But, not one to give up, I will try it again at the intermediate level this Fall.

I do believe there is value in sharing your work and having trusted people look for holes in your plot and everything else and give you their critique because you know they want you to release the best story possible. But this crap? I am SO not into it. I do not feel like I am learning much and if these critique letters were not such a big part of my grade, I would not bother. Good thing there are plenty of people in my class who like to talk during workshops, I am not one of them.

I found this quote from a guest post on Jane Friedman’s site, and Jennie Nash nails it perfectly:

A group of writers who are not trained to assess problems with a story or argument often get it wrong, or get it partially right, or demand specific remedies—not necessarily on purpose, but by a sort of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. It’s not good. It comes without any assistance in how to move forward. You get the “it’s not working” feedback, but not the nurturing and patience you need to fix your problem, and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how they would fix things, or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path for crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.

This is what I have found, and this is what I don’t like. This is also why I used a story I don’t care about because I was definitely not going to use any piece of my novel because that work is deeply personal for me and it is not ready yet. When the time comes, I will select my own group that I think will benefit me. Until then, I am burning all the critique letters.

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Back To School

It’s been a long time. I have not written a public blog in 5 months. I don’t know why, really. A lot of times I think about writing things and then don’t. But, I have it, so might as well use it. And now that I am in school, I am doing a lot of writing, which seems to be inspiring me to do even more writing.

School has been an adjustment, that is for sure. This term, I am gone Monday-Thursday, from basically 8am-8pm. Long days. I attend 2 classes in person at Portland State University: Intro to Fiction Writing and Business Publishing for Writers. One class is online, Critical Theory of Cinema. All of this while working my same full-time job.

At this point, I am in Week 7 of a 10-week term. Hard to believe a mere 4 months ago I had not even thought of this as a possibility. But, one Sunday afternoon in January while sitting in my room my soul whispered “why don’t you go to school for what your heart truly desires?”. If I was going to do something else, why not this?

The one regret I ever had in my life, or maybe the biggest one I had, was that I wished I would have gone to school for writing. I thought many, many times about getting an MFA, but having a Business degree, I needed the critical piece of instructors to give me writing recommendations.

I started with lofty ideas of getting a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Film Studies. After realizing I want to get my 2nd degree as fast as possible and I don’t want to take 2 years of Spanish or minor in Film, I have switched over to a Bachelor’s of Science in English. All this really means is no 2-year language requirement or Fine Art class.

It is becoming more apparent as I journey on in school the subject that really gets me going is book publishing. Turns out PSU has a Master’s in Book Publishing and they run their own press. And, I could visit a literary festival and publishing houses in Scotland over a 2-week span in the summer. So, I think at this point, my end-game is to finish up my Bachelor’s of Science in English, then apply to get a Master’s in Book Publishing.

As hard as this is, I know it is exactly what I am meant to be doing. I feel now more than ever my external pursuits finally, finally match what is in me internally. Besides, in getting this 2nd degree I can see if I have the chops to do the work and succeed at getting a Master’s degree. I am saying all this to say is that it really is never too late. I will turn 48 years old this year and chances are I am older than most of my instructors. But, IT DOES NOT MATTER. For me, this is my formal training ground, to take all the work I have been doing on my own and hone it to a fine, sharp point. By the time I am 50, it is likely I will have a Master’s degree. Oh, and so far, I am an A student.

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A Normal Friday Night

I thought it would be just a normal Friday night. Popped into Fred Meyer right after work to get something for dinner, then decided to leave because I could not find anything I wanted. I was in the store about 10 minutes. On the way in, I noticed one cop car at Starbucks. Nothing unusual, they could have been stopping in or checking something out. On my way out to my car I noticed more cop cars, sirens and more cops arriving by the minute and paused in the lobby to see what was going on. A Fred Meyer employee advised people to leave out of the opposite set of doors, or maybe not leave at all. I debated a minute about leaving but something told me I should stay put. I did not want to be that random dumb civilian who got caught in the cross-fire nor made the situation worse.

A few of us were milling out in the lobby seeing if it was safe for us to leave and wondering what was going on. I could see the cops moving around the Starbucks outside and I realized this was developing into something more serious. And then I heard what I thought be one shot. I could see at least two of the cops with guns drawn, one handgun and something that looked like a rifle. I still had no idea what was happening, except for guns drawn never means anything good.

I could feel the officers emotions skittering around trying to figure out what to do and how to contain the situation. I had no idea what the situation actually was. I am not generally a dramatic person so I am not entirely sure why I stayed out in the lobby, which was enclosed only in glass, rather than going into the store. I also think at that point Fred Meyer had locked the lobby doors that led to the outside. As I was watching, the door from Starbucks opened and the suspect came out, his back to the lobby area, gun drawn, feet planted, pointed straight at the cops. As things often do, time slowed down and that moment is forever crystallized in my mind. I can see him vividly in my mind and realized at that moment how incredibly serious the situation had become and I thought he was going to die.

There seemed to be the longest pause and then the “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire. I didn’t see the cops shoot him or what happened next. I had no desire to watch and I remember scrambling around a little bit and then thinking I should get down to make myself less of a target in the event bullets went astray as I had nothing between me and the situation but glass. Some people were hiding behind a large ice freezer and I think other people ran into the store. I remember the looks on the faces of the people hiding behind the freezer, basically frozen in terror, once the gunshots stopped. Everyone was asking everyone else if they were okay and I just wanted to get out of there.

I was thinking about what I would do if the cops hadn’t got the suspect or if he came in the store, where would be the best place to hide. I went all the way to the back of the store. The fear and the terror was a palpable feeling, not just from myself internally, but others too. I felt sick to my stomach and had no appetite by then. I figured the cops must have killed him or contained him because I didn’t hear any additional gunshots.

Within the next few minutes they put the store on lock-down and I was milling around with everyone else. Some people had no idea what happened, others made the comment about the police shooting someone and then I had some brief conversations with other folks about where they had been and what they experienced and what I experienced. Most people and employees had no idea what happened or why the store was on lock-down.

The lock-down did not last very long and they were letting out people out of the doors on the South side of the store. I walked all the way around the parking lot as the police taped off a good portion of it. Cops were everywhere, up and down 28th from Broadway to the Fred Meyer and of course my car was parked in the taped-off area. I saw the news crews and other people looking on. I ended up talking to one girl about what had happened as she lived in the area and I thought about how to get to my car and get home but I did not want to talk to anyone else about it. I wanted to get home and get out of there. Police officers were escorting people to their cars and I waited a few minutes for the cops to escort me over to my car and then I got out of there. There were a lot of emotions running through me at that time, but overall I was okay and things could have been much worse.

I found out the next day that the suspect was an armed fugitive wanted on a Federal warrant and that the FBI and the US Marshalls were there. This did not make me feel any better. I called the non-emergency line for the police to let them know I had been there in case they needed my information. I read they had taken witnesses on a Tri-met bus and talked to them and photographed them. When I went straight back into the store, my only thought was to get as far away from the scene as possible and so I never did talk to the cops.

I had been texting my brother and one of my co-workers because I thought someone needed to know where I was. I have no recollection of what I was texting and a lot of the moments were fuzzy in my mind. I ended up going to McDonald’s to get food and saw yet another unmarked cop car heading down Broadway to the scene. It is most likely the scariest thing I have experienced to date. My brother came home early to make sure I was okay and a friend came over and I gave them the story as I could remember it.

A shot of whiskey was in order after that experience so he went and got some Jameson, of course. I felt like crying, but didn’t and felt drained and exhausted. My brother and I stayed up late talking about it, I talked to my nephew and my other brother on the phone too. For me it was a matter of processing the emotions of being in the situation. I questioned whether or not I was actually or danger or if I was just making it more than it was. It very easily could have been much worse. I think we tend to do that when we are trying to make sense of something that seems so very senseless.

I am so grateful there was no loss of life and no one else was hurt but the suspect. What a crazy thing to have happened. I’ve been quiet about it because I did not want to sensationalize it anymore that it already was and I needed time to process and think about it. I had a very busy day Saturday and went to work as normal, just telling a few people what happened. I also called a small number of friends and family to let them know I had been there and was okay because I wanted them to hear it from me rather than from a post or something else. We had a holiday work party that night and I had another friends’ birthday party and I was just wiped out from the events of the past 24 hours. I didn’t get out of bed on Sunday until almost 11am.

I don’t feel more scared to go anywhere though I do get a little freaked out when I hear sirens because I now clearly realize what could be at stake. I can only begin to imagine a tiny little bit what the people involved in mass shootings might have felt, or the cops who were called in to handle the situation I found myself in might have felt. I thought about what would cause someone to be so desperate he would pull a gun on cops knowing what the outcome most likely would be and quite possibly could be his death. Lots and lots of thoughts. Even now it seems like I wasn’t there and it wasn’t real and it wasn’t me. But it was. And I was. For whatever reason.

It definitely took me a full day of rest yesterday to feel back to normal. I didn’t even leave the house. Not because I was scared, but I wanted one single day where I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I watched football and movies and took it easy. I’m still thinking about what happened. I don’t know why I was there, maybe just simply a matter of wrong time, wrong place. One thing that is clear is that you don’t ever know. I could have left the store because I didn’t want to be inconvenienced and wanted to get on my way, but something told me to stay back. I am glad I listened to my intuition because I might have found myself in a much worse situation.

It's July 10th And I'm Still Eating Potato Salad...

All true and left-over from a July 4th celebration.  My grandma taught me and a party-goer requested the recipe and I thought, "Huh.  I don't have a recipe." And so I set out to re-create how I made the potato salad for this event.  Then I decided I would share it here on my blog.  What's for dinner tonight?  The last of the potato salad.  

1 dozen eggs
6-8 Russet Potatoes (6 if large, 8 if a few smaller potatoes)
Steinfeld’s baby dill pickles (I like 10-12)
Dijon mustard
Pickle juice (trust me - it works)
Salt (to taste) optional
Pepper (to taste) optional
Garlic salt or powder (to taste) optional
Celery salt (to taste) optional
Paprika (for garnishment) optional
-Put two large pans of water on the stove on high to bring to boil at the same time (one for eggs, one for potatoes)
-Wash and scrub potatoes
-Cut potatoes into chunks, skin on
-Put eggs in one pan carefully
-Put potato chunks in second pan
-Once eggs come to good, rolling boil, take them off the heat and cover, setting them aside to cook in the boiled water (a good 10-12 mins works, or until you are done boiling potatoes)
-Allow potato chunks to boil until soft, but not mealy (eggs should be good to go at this time)
-Take potatoes off heat and drain in a colander or whatever method works, allow them to cool
-Drain eggs, bathe eggs and allows them to sit in cold water
-Gently peel potato skins off the chunks (I like to use my hands but whatever works), the skins should come off fairly easily
-Put peeled potato chunks back in pan
-Take eggs out of cold water bath and peel one by one, putting in pan with peeled potatoes (if you can get them peeled by the membrane just inside the shell you will get a lot more egg)
-Mash potatoes and eggs together (I like to use a hand potato masher as you can control the size of the eggs and potatoes much better, but again, whatever works)
-At any point, dice the baby dill pickles (I am a horrible “dicer”, so I get them in irregular chunks close to the size)
-Throw pickles in with eggs and potatoes
-Add between 1 ½ to 2 cups of mayo to mix or as little or as much as you like (do start with a lesser amount and add to taste so you do not end up with too much mayo)
-Add between 2-3 tbsp of dijon mustard, or as little or as much as you like (follow same directions as mayo - start small)
-Add in a little pickle juice to cut the mayo and mustard, or none at all (again, start small as you do not want too much liquid)
-Add salt/pepper/garlic salt or powder to taste
*works best to make a day ahead for time to cool down and chill, taste again before serving and adjust mayo/mustard/pickle juice/spices if necessary, but even a few hours in the fridge will allow it to cool